One of Western New York’s fastest growing groups is the power trio known as Handsome Young Ladies. The Rochester natives make their art and living by being a cover band, taking their decades of musical experience and using it to create some of the most innovative remakes you’ll ever hear. Handsome Young Ladies (aka HYL) are quite masterful at their craft, tackling tunes from a wide spectrum of different genres—from pop to indie rock to classic soul to R&B to grunge, etc.—which they somehow successfully make their own.
The guys recently released their new, cleverly-titled, cover album, We Got It Covered (which you can find on Spotify among other digital providers), which includes versions of songs by Tears For Fears, Michael Jackson, The Police and even ‘90s Swedish pop group Ace Of Base.
Today, as part of our TOP 10 series, Handsome Young Ladies’ frontman and guitarist Sam Swanson runs down the ten songs that have most impacted him as a cover artist. Commenting on what he loves about remakes, Swanson stated, “One of my favorite things about cover songs that have their own spin is that if you’ve never heard the original song before you hear the cover rendition, many times it appears as if the cover is the original. Some of the songs on this list became bigger successes than the original recordings ever did and therefore there are some people who still think that some of these cover songs are the originals. Others on this list are more obscure but make no mistake, each of these ten covers without a doubt stand on their own.”
HYL recently released a music video for their cover of Elton John’s classic “Bennie and The Jets.”
01. Whitney Houston – “I Will Always Love You” (Dolly Parton) from The Bodyguard Soundtrack (1992, Arista Records)
– This was the first mainstream album I ever owned on compact disc. Not only is Houston’s take on Dolly Parton’s twangy classic a reinvention of her own, but she also did that with two other songs on this soundtrack as well. Her version of Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” destroys and the way she sang “Jesus Loves Me” was divine. When Whitney sang a song it was her song regardless of who wrote it. The Bodyguard is still the best-selling soundtrack of all time for many reasons including the fact that it contains numerous epic covers that charted.
02. Big Mountain – “Baby I Love Your Way” (Peter Frampton) from Reality Bites Soundtrack (1994, RCA Records)
– In the early ‘90s, there was definitely a short-lived trend going on that consisted of reggae bands covering classic pop/rock songs with their own spin. Another one at the time was UB40’s cover of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love” for the Sliver Soundtrack in 1993. Following that came Big Mountain (which in my opinion did even better) with their version of Peter Frampton’s “Baby I Love Your Way” for the Reality Bites Soundtrack a year later.
The jazzier chord structuring along with horns, keys, and flute makes the vibe of this reinterpretation so special on top of hearing it in reggae format. Singer Joaquin McWhinney’s soulful croon really is the cherry on top though. It was definitely a cross-over contemporary pop success with its music video being aired constantly by both VH1 and MTV at the time. I know I could never get enough of this one every time it’d play on the radio back in the day.
Handsome Young Ladies’ latest album We Got It Covered was released on May 17th.
03. Nirvana – “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (traditional/unknown) from MTV Unplugged in New York (1994, DGC)
– MTV’s Unplugged series is chock full of ambitiously stripped-down acoustic and unique artistic performances caught on live record. One of the most notable, however, is undoubtedly Nirvana’s 1994 performance and final album recorded just before the death of Kurt Cobain. The band chose to cover multiple songs by the likes of The Vaselines, Meat Puppets and David Bowie which were all rippers but, for me, the most stand-out track on this record is their cover of the traditional “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” a.k.a. “In The Pines.”
While Nirvana’s take musically followed the more Lead Belly-esque version it was expanded upon so much with the cello and Kurt’s unmistakable and endearing rasp. This cover is such a great example of how you don’t have to change everything in the song sonically to make it stand out. You can just add a few layers and a completely different voice to shine a new light on it.
04. Joan Jett & Paul Westerberg – “Let’s Do It” (Cole Porter) from Tank Girl Soundtrack (1995, Elektra/Warner Bros)
– Tank Girl was a gateway film and soundtrack for me. It introduced me to a plethora of new music at such a young age that I had not heard previously. There were quite a few amazing songs from the movie that were not included on the CD track listing also. In the film, there was a more standard 1920’s jazz age interpretation of Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It” sung by Lori Petty. For the film’s theme, they took it further with a punk rock version sung by Joan Jett and Paul Westerberg.
I had never heard anything quite like it yet and I remember it giving me such a wild rush when playing it through the headphones of my Sony Discman. The original rendition of this composition is amazing as it is but hearing two punk rock icons reinvent it together definitely brings it to another level of its own.
Here’s HYL’s rendition and music video for “Smooth Operator,” from 1980s English band Sade.
05. The Fugees – “Killing Me Softly” (Roberta Flack) from The Score Soundtrack (1996, Ruffhouse/Columbia)
– Hip-hop itself has introduced me to so much music that I would never have heard before just based on sampling alone. Especially so many of those ‘70s gems that were sampled in ‘90s hip-hop and rap music. In fact, sometimes I actually feel more like a DJ/producer with my approach to covering songs than I do a typical cover/copy musician. A great example of flipping a song in a simplistic manner by giving it a different groove than the original with some extra flavor is best displayed in 1996’s flawless rendition of Roberta Flack‘s “Killing Me Softly” by The Fugees.
Once again, this one was a cross-over contemporary radio smash hit. Everybody and their mom were jamming this on the daily and it still holds up. The Fugees’ album The Score went six times platinum and this cover certainly played a big role in its success along with Lauryn Hill’s magnificent vocal delivery.
06. Me First & The Gimme Gimmes – “Country Roads” (John Denver) from Survival of The Fattest (1996, Fat Wreck Chords)
– Nobody covers a country song like Me First and the Gimme Gimmes does. I first came across this punk rock cover supergroup on a Fat Wreck Chords comp back in the mid-‘90s while discovering many punk bands for my first time. I wasn’t raised on country at all whatsoever so I actually thought this was an original in the initial moment of listening to this disc for the first time until the chorus hit. It actually was not until I heard them again on Epitaph’s Punk O’ Rama Vol. 2 covering Billy Joel’s “Only The Good Die Young” that I’d finally make the connection that MF/GG was exclusively a cover band.
Over the years this band has offered up the best consistent catalog of studio cover albums I’ve ever heard and without a doubt has everything to do with me starting HYL. Their sped up and almost humorous version of “Country Roads” will always take me back to that magical moment in study hall when I discovered the possibilities of bending the genres of a song and mutating it into something drastically different.
“Roxanne” should require no introduction. Here’s HYL showing you their skills playing live at Young Lion Brewing Company.
07. Smoking Popes – “Pure Imagination” (Gene Wilder/Willy Wonka) from Destination Failure (1997, Capitol Records)
– The McHenry County kid in me could geek out very easily about the legacy that is Smoking Popes. If you are from the Chicagoland area or neighboring suburbs you already know the impact that this band has had (and if you don’t you’d better ask somebody). With that being said, 1997’s Destination Failure (my personal favorite Popes record) included one cover song on its lengthy and perfect track listing. A beautiful and one-of-a-kind interpretation of “Pure Imagination” originally sung by Gene Wilder in the film Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.
Josh Caterer’s delightful croon over lush guitars and a smooth rhythm section leaves its own unique imprint on an already lovable classic movie tune. This might be one of the most creative examples of how to infuse one’s own artistic vision into a cover song. What an excellent pick from an exceptional and influential band!
08. Reel Big Fish – “Take On Me” (A-ha) from Baseketball Soundtrack (1998, Jive/Legacy)
– A-ha’s “Take On Me” might be one of the strongest and most well-written synthpop/new wave songs of the ‘80s. I think most would agree that it is one of those fun songs that transcends age, culture, and musical taste. It’s been covered by many different bands including MxPx, Cap’n Jazz, and even more recently Weezer. To me, however, there is no better or more fun rendition than Reel Big Fish’s contribution to the Baseketball Soundtrack in 1998.
As the third wave of ska boomed across the airwaves RBF came in hard with their own solid ska punk sound, applying it to a cover of an already infectious and catchy ‘80s masterpiece. The horn section carried this song to undeniable new heights while Aaron Barrett’s strong vocal style really put a new identity on it.
Another example of the band’s talents, check this live acoustic rendition of Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places.”
09 Braid – “Always Something There To Remind Me” (Burt Bacharach) from Split Single w/ Burning Airlines (1998, Polyvinyl)
– Burt Bacharach’s songwriting catalog speaks for itself. So many artists have covered his work and I have yet to hear a dud. The song “Always Something There To Remind Me” was made very popular in the ‘80s by Naked Eyes and I enjoyed that version immensely growing up but Midwestern emo pioneers Braid really put their own spin on that bad boy in 1998 on the split single they did with Burning Airlines. Both Bob Nanna (Braid, Hey Mercedes) and J. Robbins (Burning Airlines, Jawbox) have a habit of using untypical chord formations and structures in their music so teaming up on this covers split single was quite suiting.
Braid’s approach to Bacharach gave it a more indie rock spin very much in the same vein as their work on 1998’s “Frame and Canvas.” I am a huge fan of that record and an even bigger fan of the debut album Everynight Fire Works by Bob Nanna’s Hey Mercedes. In fact, when recording HYL’s We Got It Covered a year ago I specifically played that record for Jesse Sprinkle in the studio as a reference for its amazing guitar tones. Bob Nanna’s heavy and ongoing contribution to independent music speaks for itself. Covering Bacharach in ‘98 was another classy move by this legendary underground band from the Midwest.
10 Earth Wind & Fire – “Got To Get You Into My Life” (The Beatles) from The Best Of Vol. 1 (1978, Columbia)
– Last but certainly not least and actually I would argue that I saved the best for last. The only reason I listed “Got To Get You Into My Life” last on this list is because ironically I heard Earth Wind & Fire’s version of this song for the first time in 2003 which chronologically follows the order in which I discovered each of these ten cover tunes (even though chronologically this is the oldest recording on the list being released in 1978).
1978’s jazzed and funked out rendition of “Got To Get You Into My Life” is by far my favorite cover song of all time! EW&F made such amazing original songs as it stands but they took an undeniably flawlessly-crafted Beatles song and teleported it into another dimension of beauty and wonder. This version never ceases to amaze me and the unique chord progressions always make me feel things that The Beatles’ more “meat and potatoes” chords just couldn’t. And that guitar solo though! And those horns!
I could go on and on about this one but if you want to know how to raise the bar look no further than the standard set by Maurice White and his ground-breaking jazz fusion/funk/soul pop genius band Earth Wind & Fire. Also, if you haven’t ever delved into their catalogue, I suggest picking up EW&F’s The Best of Vol. 1 which opens with this masterpiece.